Wilcox, Herbert

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WILCOX, Herbert

Producer and Director. Nationality: British. Born: Cork, Ireland (some sources say Norwood, South London), 19 April 1892 (some sources say 1890). Education: Attended school in Brighton, England. Military Service: Royal Flying Corps, during World War I: pilot. Family: Married 1) Maude Bower, three daughters, one son; 2) Anna Neagle, 1943. Career: Worked as journalist until 1914; 1919—entered film rental business with Astra Films; 1920—founded Graham Wilcox Productions with director Graham Cutts; 1922—produced first feature film, The Wonderful Story; 1929—set up British and Dominion Productions; 1932—first film with Anna Neagle, Goodnight Vienna; 1937—chairman and managing director, Imperator Film Productions; 1938—signed distribution agreement with RKO; 1940–42—directed for RKO in Hollywood before returning to Britain; 1945—signed distribution agreement with 20th Century-Fox; 1964—declared bankrupt. Died: In London, 15 May 1977.

Films as Producer:


The Wonderful Story (Cutts); Flames of Passion (Cutts)


Paddy-the-Next-Best-Thing (Cutts); Chu Chin Chow (+ d)


Southern Love (+ d); Decameron Nights (+ d)


The Only Way (+ d)


Nell Gwyn (+ d, sc); London (Limehouse) (+ d, sc)


Tiptoes (+ d, sc); Madame Pompadour (+ d); Mumsie (+ d); The Luck of the Navy (Paul) (co-pr)


Dawn (+ d); The Bondman (+ d);


The Woman in White (+ d); Splinters (Raymond)


Rookery Nook (Walls); The Loves of Robert Burns (+ d); Wolves (Wanted Men) (de Courville); Canaries Sometimes Sing (Walls); Plunder (Walls); Tons of Money (Walls)


Chance of a Night-Time (co-d, Lynn); Carnival (+ d); Almost a Divorce (Varney); The Speckled Band (Raymond); Up for the Cup (Raymond); Mischief (Raymond)


Thark (Walls); The Flag Lieutenant (Edwards); Say It with Music (Raymond); The Love Contract (Selpin); The Blue Danube (+ d); Goodnight Vienna (Magic Night); Mayor's Nest (Rogers); Money Means Nothing (Templeman); Leap Year (Walls)


Yes Mr. Brown (+ d); The King's Cup (+ d); Bitter Sweet (+ d); Sorrell and Son (Raymond); The Little Damozel (+ d); Just My Luck (Raymond); Up for the Derby (Rogers); The Blarney Stone (Walls); Night of the Garter (Raymond); Summer Lightning (Rogers); Up to the Neck (Raymond); That's a Good Girl (Buchanan); Trouble (Rogers)


The Queen's Affair (+ d); Nell Gwyn (+ d); The King of Paris (Raymond); It's a Cop (Raymond); Girls Please! (Raymond)


Brewster's Millions (Freeland); Escape Me Never (Czinner); Peg of Old Drury (+ d); Where's George? (The Hope of His Side) (Raymond and Young); Come out of the Pantry (Raymond)


Limelight (+ d); The Three Maxims (+ d); This'll Make You Whistle (+ d); Fame (Hiscott); Millions (Hiscott)


The Gang Show (Goulding); The Frog (Raymond); The Rat (Goulding); Sunset in Vienna (Suicide Legion) (Walker); London Melody (Girl in the Street) (+ d); Our Fighting Navy (Torpedoed) (+ d); Victoria the Great (+ d); Splinters in the Air (Goulding)


Blondes for Danger (Raymond); Sixty Glorious Years (+ d); Return of the Frog (Elvey)


Nurse Edith Cavell (+ d)


Irene (+ d); No, No Nanette (+ d)


Sunny (+ d)


They Flew Alone (Wings and the Woman) (+ d); Queen Victoria (reedited amalgamation of Victoria the Great and Sixty Glorious Years) (+ d)


Forever and a Day (co-pr,+ co-d); The Yellow Canary (+ d)


I Live in Grosvenor Square (A Yank in London) (+ d)


Piccadilly Incident (+ d)


The Courtneys of Curzon Street (Kathy's Love Affair) (+ d)


Spring in Park Lane (+ d); Elizabeth of Ladymead (+ d)


Maytime in Mayfair (+ d)


Odette (+ d); Into the Blue (co-pr, + d)


The Lady with the Lamp (+ d)


Derby Day (+ d)


Trent's Last Case (+ d); The Beggar's Opera (Brook) (co-pr); Laughing Anne (+ d)


Trouble in the Glen (+ d); Lilacs in the Spring (Let's Make Up) (+ d)


King's Rhapsody (+ d)


My Teenage Daughter (+ d)


Yangtse Incident (Battle Hell) (Anderson)


The Man Who Wouldn't Talk (+ d)


The Lady Is a Square (+ d); The Navy Lark (Parry)

Films as Director Only:


These Dangerous Years (Dangerous Youth)


Wonderful Things


The Heart of a Man


By WILCOX: book—

25,000 Sunsets: The Autobiography of Herbert Wilcox, London, 1967.

On WILCOX: books—

Neagle, Anna, It's Been Fun, London, 1949.

Low, Rachael, The History of the British Film 1918–1929, London, 1971.

Neagle, Anna, There's Always Tomorrow, London, 1974.

Armes, Roy, A Critical History of the British Cinema, London, 1978.

Low, Rachael, The History of the British Film 1929–1939: Film Making in 1930s Britain, London, 1985.

On WILCOX: articles—

Obituary in New York Times, 16 May 1977.

Obituary in Vareity (New York), 18 May 1977.

Passek, Jean-Loup, "Herbert Wilcox," in Cinéma (Paris), August/September 1977.

Stimpson, Mansel, "When His Taste Was Our Taste," in What's On in London, 11 April 1990.

Bagh, Peter von, "Kuninkaankuvia," in Filmihullu (Helsinki), no. 1, 1998.

* * *

The function of the film producer is so imprecise that most producers are perhaps best defined in terms of some other role. Of the three leading British producers between the wars, Michael Balcon was a studio boss; Alexander Korda was a mogul; and Herbert Wilcox was, above all, a showman.

Like most showmen, Wilcox regarded truth as a flexible commodity, and many of the claims he made for himself in his floridly entitled autobiography, 25,000 Sunsets, need to be treated with care. (Even his romantic Irish origins now seem doubtful; more recent research suggests he may have been born, not in County Cork as he gave out, but more prosaically in the south London suburb of Norwood.) But what is not disputed is that Wilcox was a key figure, along with Balcon, in establishing the British cinema on a reasonably sound financial basis during the crucial period of the twenties when it seemed in danger of going under to the Hollywood invaders.

Even before Balcon, Wilcox devised the survival strategy of importing American stars and German technical know-how to boost his films' appeal and production values. Each of his productions was exploited to the hilt. "His plans," Rachael Low noted (in her 1920s volume), "were always on a grand scale. Each film was a major property, not a little commodity." When sound arrived, Wilcox lost no time in setting up his own British and Dominion Studios at Elstree, fully equipped with Western Electric Sound. The early thirties were his most prolific period as a producer. Gathering around him a stable of solid, journeyman directors, he oversaw a steady string of decently crafted movies, often featuring established theatrical stars like Jack Buchanan and Tom Walls, most of which did well at the box office.

If anything, he was too prolific. His partner, Richard Norton (quoted by Low in her thirties volume), described him as "the quickest man to start making pictures you ever saw; if you took your eyes off him for a moment two or three more would be on the way, and of course . . . you used up all your working capital." After a financial crisis or two Wilcox was gradually persuaded to cut back and concentrate on a few big pictures each year—many of them, by this stage, starring Anna Neagle. He always had a flair for rooting out acting talent—Clive Brook and Madeleine Carroll were among those he brought to the screen—but it was his discovery of Neagle, and subsequent long partnership with her (both professional and personal) that shaped the rest of his filmmaking career.

Neagle was to star in almost all the films for which Wilcox is now best remembered. Before the war there were the grand historical pageants, with Neagle impersonating Nell Gwyn, Peg Woffington and, most famously, Queen Victoria. After the war came the string of escapist light comedies set in a high-society never-neverland—Spring in Park Lane, Maytime in Mayfair and the like. Neither cycle much impressed the critics—"Both the director and the star seem to labour under the impression that they are producing something important," noted Graham Greene of Sixty Glorious Years—but for a while at least the public responded with enthusiasm.

In many ways Wilcox, though a far less pompous and more likable figure, had a good deal in common with Cecil B. DeMille. Both men prided themselves on having their fingers on (or, as Joe Mankiewicz suggested in DeMille's case, up) the pulse of the public; both succeeded for much of their careers in operating as a virtually autonomous force within the industry. Both, quite early on, hit on a fairly simple audience-pleasing formula and stuck with it; and both, having started out as innovators known for making daring and even mildly scandalous films, saw public taste evolve past them while they stood still, so that they became outdated, almost ludicrous figures. The main difference, of course, is that DeMille, the shrewder operator of the two, ended up outdated but rich, while Wilcox wound up outdated and broke, unable to adapt and blaming audiences for rejecting his offerings. "The public wants horror and sadism," he complained after his bankruptcy in 1964. "I make pleasant films about pleasant people."

"Pleasant"—in that revealing word may lie the reason why Wilcox now seems, when set beside Balcon, Korda, or Del Giudice, a marginal figure in the history of British cinema. Both as producer and director he set out to please his audiences, and very often succeeded. But the idea that he might try to challenge them, to overturn or subvert their assumptions—in short, that the cinema should aim to be anything beyond a medium of entertainment—never seems to have occurred to him. (Or if it did, he promptly dismissed the idea.) Herbert Wilcox's success as a filmmaker was his ability, during the greater part of his career, to gauge just what the public wanted and give it to them. But in the long run, that was also his failure.

—Philip Kemp